Dispatches, December 1998
Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness is a region of such overwhelming natural grace that the simple act of staring into its emerald lakes has been known to produce the sort of epiphanies that can instantly transform jaded urbanites into card-carrying members of the John Muir appreciation society. As seductive as those waters are, however, the backdrop behind them holds an even more powerful allure. Since the 1950s, the 40 jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Range that soar 10,000 feet out of the spruces and lodgepole and ponderosa pines have beckoned rock-climbing aficionados from as far afield as France and Japan. "It truly is the gem of Idaho," sighs Bill LeVere, 40, who has served as the area's supervisor for the past three years. "It's an important part of my job to preserve it for my kids and my kids' kids. I really didn't expect this decision would cause all of the controversy."
The controversy to which LeVere is referring started in September 1997, when he completed an inch-and-a-half-thick management plan for the Sawtooth that included a ban on the use of fixed climbing anchors, pitons, and slings on all new climbing routes in the area. LeVere's argument was that these "installations" constituted "permanent improvements," and thus violated the 1964 Wilderness Act. Six months later, the bureaucratic tectonics of the federal government had elevated LeVere's proscription to the level of a nationwide policy, affecting all wilderness areas managed by the Forest Service and provoking howls of protest from rock climbers, outdoor retailers, and backcountry outfitters all over the country. "This is the biggest threat to climbing in the last 20 years," says Lloyd Athern of the American Alpine Club. "The scale of lands affected is staggering."
The moment LeVere filed his Sawtooth policy, which applied only to new permanent anchors, it drew contradictory objections from two different groups. While a Montana-based environmental organization called Wilderness Watch argued that the ban didn't go far enough and should actually require the removal of all existing anchors, the Access Fund, a climbing advocacy and conservation group, protested that LeVere's decision was based on a misreading of the Wilderness Act. In November 1997, both organizations appealed to Deputy Regional Forester Jack Troyer in Ogden, Utah. In April, when Troyer issued a letter backing his Idaho subordinate, the protesters howled even louder.
By May, word of the imbroglio had spread all the way to the fourth-floor office at Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., where the nameplate on the desk reads Mike Dombeck, Chief. Dombeck and his officers reviewed the documents and went even further, also barring the replacement of existing bolts. At which point, the fixed-anchor ban summarily became national policy, applying to all Forest Service wilderness areas and effectively shutting down some of the country's best climbing spots, such as California's Tahquitz Rock, Wyoming's Cirque of the Towers, and Washington's Mount Stuart. Moreover, because federal agencies often follow one another's lead on such matters, similar restrictions could eventually be imposed on wilderness areas overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. "Essentially," says Sam Davidson, a policy analyst at the Access Fund, "we're looking at having our most historic and inspirational climbs being made off-limits."
The climbing community argues that a more equitable solution would be to establish a clear and coherent set of guidelines enabling supervisors like LeVere to craft fair and appropriate fixed-anchor policies on a case-by-case basis. The campaign to promote this alternative was spearheaded by a coalition of groups like the Access Fund and retail giants such as REI. In June, they cut a Faustian bargain with Senator Slade Gorton, a hard-line Republican from Washington state who is reviled by greens for his sponsorship of the infamous 1995 Timber Salvage Rider. Gorton, whose disdain for the environment is surpassed only by his solicitude toward well-heeled constituents — in this case REI, whose headquarters is located near Seattle — obliged by inserting language into this year's appropriations bill that would overturn Dombeck's ruling.
Meanwhile, in an attempt at preemptive damage control, the Forest Service's parent, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, dispatched Undersecretary Jim Lyons to Salt Lake City to perform a public-relations act of contrition. Lyons called a press conference at the Outdoor Retailer August convention and declared that he was overruling Dombeck. First, he slapped a hold on the fixed-anchor ban, temporarily rescinding the prohibition in all Forest Service areas except the Sawtooth. Then he announced that he was instituting a "negotiated rule-making process," in which climbers, wilderness activists, and government officials will craft a national policy on fixed anchors. The wrangling, which should take between one and three years, begins this month.
What is ironic and unfortunate about this dispute is that it has opened a rift between two groups that should be allies: climbers, most of whom revere wild places, and backcountry purists, some of whom are offended by what has happened in a small number of especially abused climbing spots, such as the Upper Leslie Gulch Wilderness Study Area in Idaho, where wall rats have drilled hundreds of bolts, chiseled handholds, and actually glued some of the rocks together to stabilize them. Of even greater concern, say the purists, is the possibility that allowing continued placement of new fixed anchors could open the door to other groups currently prohibited from wilderness areas. "If I have to choose between allowing fixed bolts — which will bring lawsuits demanding access from mountain bikers, snow-machine operators, and helicopter-hiking operators — and a ban on fixed bolts, which will limit my climbing but protect the wilderness," says Steve Wolper, a 30-year Sawtooth climbing veteran, "then I'll take the ban."
Understandably, few climbers are prepared to accept Wolper's position, because it would peremptorily close off many of the most extraordinary routes in the United States. Appalled by that prospect, the climbing community has entered Lyons's rule-making process hoping that a compromise can be reached, and all too aware that the costs of failing to find it could be enormous. "If there's no resolution with this issue, we're going to see the polarization of environmental groups and climbers over wilderness," warns Davidson. "In the future it's going to be increasingly hard to find common ground."